Inside Higher Education: From Crisis to Composition

Inside Higher Education: From Crisis to Composition
By Jessica Yood

Extravagant cars, illicit affairs, eliminating gluten — I’ve heard these are good ways to cope with a midlife crisis. But I’m an academic. So I chose to go back to school.

After a decade teaching college composition, I decided to take the course myself. I attended and did all the work for English 111, the first of a two-semester writing requirement at the college where I teach. I completed assignments just like the other students, participated in class activities, took the final and got a grade. I recorded my experience, interviewed classmates and collected writing.

Becoming a student was not how I thought I’d spend a long-awaited sabbatical. I intended to do what every academic plans to do on leave: complete a book.

“We must understand the link between rhetoric and complexity.” That’s how I opened the book when I started it, back in 2008. I followed up with close readings of little-known scientific documents and a link between complexity science and my theory of a networked, posthuman rhetoric. The second half promised to describe a “new humanities for the 21st century.” A book contract came quickly. One press reviewer called the project a “bold challenge to the status quo.”

Three years went by, and the book lay dormant. The sabbatical was my last chance to see this through.

Things didn’t go as planned. Faculty members at my institution are eligible for sabbatical every seven years. Mine came after 12. By that point, I was a parent of three small children, juggling a heavy teaching load and directing a fledging writing program. And there was another less obvious derailment of the work-life balance: a daily failure to move on after a devastating death in my family.

Scholarship had always anchored me. But loss and regret left me detached. I couldn’t finish something begun in another time, by another self. I needed to start over.

I was not alone. My university, the City University of New York, was also on the verge of something new. Since 2008, the fate of higher education had become a national crisis. It seemed like everyone was seeing an apocalypse: the rising costs of college, the low rates of graduation and the failure of academe to keep up with the needs of what President Obama called the “new knowledge society.” There was a feeling at CUNY that something had to change.

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